“Well they took all the trees and they put them in a tree museum…” Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Trees have always been a central part of human existence, and in our religions, mythologies and cultures this is celebrated, both literally and figuratively. The Tree of Life, the Charter Oak, the Wish Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, Christmas trees, and Tolkien’s Ents are but a few examples. And when people talk about putting down roots, they are referencing trees. Anyone who has ever removed even a single stump, can readily understand the analogy of permanence and determination that part of the tree affords. And I doubt it is coincidence that melancholic longing is referred to as pining, having spent more than a little time listening to the mournful sounds of wind passing through any number of fir and evergreen boughs. Wood is tree as pork is pig. I am sitting on a wood chair at a wood desk right now, inside a dwelling constructed primarily of wood, containing a fireplace that once burned wood to keep its occupants warm and cook their food. And this morning I walked across a wood bridge to the hill where I can look out to sea. That would be the sea that my ancestors crossed in wood boats when they first came to the New World. Trees are not rock, but they rock.
William Faulkner has his character Nick Carraway observe in The Great Gatsby “…for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” That view across the sound encompassed many wonders of the New World, but perhaps none so overwhelming as the virgin forests. Trees are beautiful and inspirational as well as useful in more practical ways, and that may be their greatest value to us in the years that stretch ahead. Joyce Kilmer famously wrote the lines “I doubt if I shall ever see, a poem as lovely as a tree,” but trees inspired that poem and many other worthwhile writings and ideas. Newton’s apple fell on him while he was sitting under a tree after all. The value of trees, as both priceless objects of beauty and continued utility should be so self evident and so much a part of the human experience, that we should never have evolved the term “tree hugger” to have any negative connotation. We should all be tree huggers, the flora that hugs you back. But we’re not, and free growing old growth forests are but a memory in most places.
But despite the massive acreage of lands cleared of trees for farms, for industry, for towns and cities and their associated sprawl, trees remain. Largely in part because we have made places for them to be, where they won’t be randomly cut for lumber, removed to make a mall, airport, stadium, or even a school. Parks are one of the means we have created to address and safeguard our need for trees and for the needs our fellow creatures that trees address as well. Municipal parks, county parks, state parks, and National Parks are the most well known to most Americans. But the US has roughly ten percent of the protected lands on the entire planet, so there is more. National and state forests and refuges, federal wilderness areas, fish & wildlife management areas. And vast acres under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management among others, contain trees. Add to that the acreage of arboretums, and non-governmental conservation organizations and even some private holdings that allow public access, and you increase the tree territory again. Even some of our grassland and preserved prairies have trees. Even beautiful Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave and Colorado desert, was named for a tree, a particularly distinctive species of yucca.
There are ways we can help the trees and the parklands they thrive in. Someone once said something to the effect that everyone has morals, but that everyone’s morals are different. I agree with that principle, and have lately come to apply it to how we relate to our natural world. Specifically, I think everyone loves nature, but everyone loves it differently. Point is that many people visit our parks, both large and small. Point is also, far too few of these people will bend down to pick up a piece of trash, either large or small. Carry in carry out is too often, carry in and let somebody else carry out, or not. Perhaps this was not the hike (substitute stream, lake, mountain, campsite, national park, etc) that I anticipated and I’m not coming back. Ergo, I don’t care if there’s trash here, I’m never going to see it again. I’d like to think that the problem is a small one, but truth is, we are a world, not just a nation, of repeat litterers and despoilers. Individually, institutionally, and corporately as it turns out.
Litter is not the only problem obviously, but it is right in our faces, and can be addressed quickly in two ways. First, don’t do it, second pick it up. I have developed what I call “The Gum Wrapper Theory.” If everyone bent down just once a day to pick up something even as minor as a gum wrapper, imagine the impact. On your favorite woods, town, state, continent, world. And if you take the further step of putting the appropriate items in the recycle bin, so much the better.
While reveling in the beauty of the natural world, make a gesture to keep it that way, Or, do a little more. Ever since the days of JFKs “Ask what you can do for your country” and Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification Initiative, the groundswell of volunteerism continues to rise. Even our military is a volunteer service today. We can all do something, especially those of us who love nature, which is (see first paragraph above) everyone. And, it is easy, instantly gratifying and helpful to others. And for those more closely identified with selfish, Hey! it’s good for you too!
As a fisherman, hiker, camper, and a person who feels happiest outdoors, I’ve made an effort to contribute. As a young boy, I read as much Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and William Burroughs as I did the Hardy Boys, and I read a lot of Hardy Boys. I developed a wonder and awe about nature, and a small talent for applying the philosophies I’d read about to my days afield. It has been said that some travel around the world and see nothing, while others walk around their backyard and see everything. I wanted to see what was in my backyard, figuratively, and found much. Much that enthralled me, and much that appalled me. So, I became loosely involved with a few organizations that seemed to embrace some of the same ideas as my mentors. I still am, and if you are reading this, I suspect you are too.
Park is a good catch all phrase for these places where we keep our trees now, protected or at least regulated. As we have become increasingly defined by technology, we have failed in many instances to understand just what we have created, and through it, what we have become. Surrounded by devices and structures that lack the ability to touch our souls, we must be able to balance our lives by having places that inspire grace and serenity with their beauty, and heal our wounds with their recreations and scale. Parks in the broadest terms, can fulfill that need.
Parks still contain the memories of the wonder that Nick Carraway spoke of, and can awaken it within us. A museum by definition contains interesting and valuable things, and trees most definitely fit that description. Joni Mitchell had something else in mind when she wrote “Big Yellow Taxi,” but our parks truly have become our tree museums, and like democracy, it might not be the best system, but it is the best system we have right now.